DO TURTLES ROAM AROUND IN THE WOODS?
by Whit Gibbons
May 18, 2008
that the highpoint of a recent walk with two of my grandchildren, Allison
and Parker, would be when the dog, Gilbey, saw a squirrel. The children
take turns holding the dog's leash, and when a rottweiler, even an old
one, decides that yet another squirrel is taunting him, it can be fun
to watch. The squirrel always wins. I prefer other highpoints. And sure
enough we were rewarded by something different. Walking the dog through
the neighborhood woods we found a snapping turtle.
make a routine dog-walking trip on a Saturday morning more enjoyable for
two children? Finding a turtle is always exciting. Asking the obvious
question, why was a snapping turtle taking a stroll through the woods
a half mile from the nearest pond, added an intellectual dimension to
for why a snapping turtle would be found in the woods so far from water
during the spring came easily to mind. The first hypothesis would be that
the turtle was a female with eggs. Most turtles lay their eggs during
late spring and early summer. And traveling more than a mile from the
water is not unheard of for a female snapper searching for a suitable
nesting site. But this was a young adult male, not a female. Hypothesis
number one was rejected.
we know it was a male and also young? The tail of adult males of most
turtle species is significantly longer than the tail of adult females.
And Parker asked how old the turtle was, so I counted the growth rings
on one of the plates on its shell. Small rings are formed on each of the
plates of a snapping turtle each winter when growth ceases. These are
similar in appearance to tree rings and can be used to estimate the age.
This one had eight rings, making it older than either of the kids.
an aquatic turtle, especially a male, might range so far away from water
is that the mating season was not quite over and it may have been looking
for a female. Female snapping turtles may not be pretty to us, but to
a male during the breeding season nothing could look finer. In springtime
many male aquatic turtles seeking females travel overland between bodies
of water. Turtle biologists assume that when a male can find no receptive
female, for whatever reason, in one lake it will leave there to search
for a female in another lake. The females usually stay put and let the
males do the searching. Whether this was a bar-hopping male on a mission
to find a mate is unresolved.
reason a male snapping turtle, especially a small one, might leave a lake
and look for another aquatic habitat is that it had encountered a larger,
dominant male in the first lake. Male snapping turtles will fight each
other during the mating season, and the loser usually does not hang around
for long. The one we discovered was half the size of some of the monsters
that can be found here and there, so maybe it just decided that safer
turf could be found elsewhere.
could readily embark on overland travel because it had rained for a couple
of days, assuring that dehydration would not be a problem. Contrary to
what one might expect of a lake-dwelling turtle, many species, including
snappers, mud turtles, and chicken turtles, commonly move overland, some
spending as much as one-third to one-half of their lives on land. Although
we will never know for sure why we found a nonnesting snapping turtle
so far from water, we had fun speculating about what it was doing and
why. Asking basic questions about plants and animals increases our enjoyment
of natural habitats. Even if we don't know the answers, speculating is
a healthy exercise.
A walk on
a spring day is sure to reveal something of interest, even if no squirrels
are around to taunt the dog. Give it a try.
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